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Covid-19 update

April Covid-19 update

2020 has proven to be a difficult year for the community.  The legal profession is of course not immune to this, and the challenges may have long-lasting impacts on many of you.  Now, more than ever, it is critical that we continue to uphold the rule of law and the administration of justice.

The government’s COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020, which passed parliament last week, has gone some way to tackling the issues we face, and here at the VLSB+C we have implemented a number of changes to support you.

Our Covid-19 FAQ page contains valuable information about these changes, as well as support available to you from across the profession.  I am working with the Law Institute of Victoria, the Victorian Bar and the Legal Practitioners’ Liability Committee to coordinate our support and communication and ensure you have the tools, resources and information you need. Of recent note, the LIV has reduced its annual membership fee for 2020/21 to $99, including for accredited specialists, to ensure as many lawyers as possible have access to their support services.

Despite these challenging circumstances, it’s still business as usual at the VLSB+C. We continue to work on our prevention programs. Last month we released our report into sexual harassment in the Victorian legal sector along with the regulatory strategy to tackle the findings, and we will soon be releasing a report on our lawyer wellbeing research. 

Unless we have advised otherwise, the usual rules and guidelines still apply. We continue to take complaints from consumers, investigations are ongoing, and when business as usual activities recommence we will be resuming face-to-face external examinations and practice compliance audits.

Innovation and adapting to these changing circumstances will be critical to surviving and thriving in this time of disruption.  If you have questions about the potential impact of changes you would like to make on your professional obligations, you can email our innovation inbox.

You can read more about our support for you and changes we’ve made in relation to Covid-19 below.

In this issue:

  • Actions you can take to safeguard your practice
  • Remote supervision of Supervised Legal Practice employees
  • Legal obligations to employees and suppliers
  • Practising certificate renewal
  • Support available

Be well,

Fiona McLeay
Board CEO + Commissioner

Actions you can take to safeguard your practice

The following actions will assist you to maintain safe and effective practice:

  • Put a contingency plan in place for the management of your practice, and let us know that you have done this when you renew your practising certificate.
  • Contact us if you’re facing difficulties with your practice and, in particular, if you feel that you are unable to continue to practise.  
  • Communicate clearly with your clients about your capacity to provide them with assistance to minimise misunderstanding and complaints.  Be open and upfront with clients about what you can and can’t take on. Document the steps you’ve taken and get any medical certificates or statutory declarations you may need to rely on if there is a complaint in the future.
  • Be careful about overreliance on electronic communications when taking instructions, whether they be from clients or colleagues.  Double check any email communications to ensure there are no misunderstandings and that you have valid instructions.
  • As an officer of the court, you have an overriding duty to respect and uphold the law.  You are required to be a fit and proper person to hold a practising certificate. You should consider not only whether you can do something, but whether you should do it – is it the ethical thing to do.  
  • Look out for your colleagues. If you are concerned that someone may be unwell or has been difficult to contact, please let us know via our new lawyer enquiry form so that we can check on their welfare.

Remote supervision of employee solicitors

Social distancing requirements now mean many lawyers are working remotely, which has implications for any supervision requirements in place.  We have prepared guidance on how to safely and effectively manage remote supervision for both supervisors and lawyers under Supervised Legal Practice (SLP) conditions.  This guidance is available on our website.

Key Points

  • All law practices employing lawyers under SLP who are now working remotely need to complete a plan for remote supervision that has input from both the supervisor and the lawyer under SLP.  A template plan is available on our website.
  • If the remote supervision is the result of COVID-19 restrictions, this plan DOES NOT need to be submitted to us for approval.
  • We will require a copy of the plan when a lawyer applies for the SLP condition to be removed from their practising certificate.
  • Legal work conducted during this remote working period will count towards our SLP requirements.
  • The supervisor and supervisee should maintain regular contact, either in person or via telephone, video conference or email.
  • The supervised lawyer should have access to all available resources that support their learning, including other partners and/or senior lawyers within the firm.

Supervisors: read our ‘Guidelines for Supervisors’ webpage

Junior lawyers: read our ‘Information for new lawyers’ webpage

Legal obligations to employees and suppliers


Unlawful changes to employment conditions

We have received enquiries and complaints from lawyers whose employers have used the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 to attempt to unilaterally amend contracts and employment conditions to reduce payment to their staff with no corresponding reduction in workloads. There have been reports of similar actions taken in firms whose work has significantly increased.

Employers who engage in this conduct should carefully consider their obligations under Australian workplace relations laws.

If we’re alerted to unlawful changes to people’s employment conditions we will take this very seriously. Where we consider this conduct amounts to unsatisfactory professional conduct or the more serious charge of professional misconduct, we will take action. 

If you are facing employment issues, you should first seek legal advice as to your rights and responsibilities. If you have experienced unlawful changes, such as changes to your employment contract without your consent, or if you believe your employer has behaved dishonestly, you can contact us to discuss making a complaint.  You can contact us via our Lawyer Enquiry form.

For those practices that are facing financial difficulty, the Fair Work Ombudsman has advice and resources on how to legally implement changes to employment conditions, as well as support that might be available to you.

Trust accounts management and payment of suppliers

Despite the financial issues that you may be facing, please remember that many people are also doing it tough right now.  You still have an obligation to pay service providers fees or payments that are owed to them, including to barristers. 

Please also be mindful of your trust account obligations and ensure that you disburse money only in accordance with the directions given by the person on whose behalf you received it.  If you hold money in trust for disbursements, then these funds should be paid out as directed.

Practising certificate renewals

In early April, we sent you your practising certificate renewal reminder, along with information about changes to this year’s renewals process.  This information is available on our website.

Key points to note

  • Renew early if you can
  • Face-to-face CPD requirements have been removed
  • There is no surcharge for applications received before 30 June
  • You can defer your fidelity fund contribution until 2021
  • If you pay our fee and fidelity fund contribution by 30 May 2020, you will receive a 5% discount on your fidelity fund contribution in 2021.

Support available

There is support available to help you through this difficult time.  Please view the below resources.

VLSB+C

LIV

Victorian Bar

LPLC

Victorian government

 

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